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Blessed Disillusionment: Bonhoeffer on Community

August 18th, 2009 | 2 min read

By Jeremy Mann

German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) wrote a book that had the alternative title How to Philosophize With a Hammer.  I’m reminded of this when I read Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who could have just as easily written a book with the alternative title How to Theologize with a Pneumatic Drill. Maybe it has to do with being German. Whatever the case, Bonhoeffer can take apart half-baked speculation and flimsy Christianity in half a paragraph.

In my church small group we have been reading Life Together, a work Bonhoeffer completed while teaching at a clandestine seminary in Nazi-dominated Germany. Early in the short book Bonhoeffer considers the pre-conceived ideal we each fabricate of what community ought to look like. He says these “wish dreams” stand in the way of real fellowship for two reasons. First, such dreams puff their dreamers up. Second, these dreams cause us to enter common life as demanders instead of as thankful recipients. Bonhoeffer is quite clear of what needs to happen:

“Just as surely as God desires to lead us to a knowledge of genuine Christian fellowship, so surely must we be overwhelmed by a great disillusionment with others, with Christians in general, and, if we are fortunate, with ourselves.”

What strikes me about this quote is the sequence of disillusionment: first with other people, then Christians in general, then, if we are fortunate, ourselves. I have a deep concern about my and many others’ honesty in facing disillusionment with ourselves. As Bonhoeffer later notes, however, there is a risk of not completing the cycle of disillusionment. If we do not become utterly convinced that our own pictures of community are destined for total failure, we will not embrace God’s. The reorientation that occurs, from demanding to thankfully receiving, changes the way we think about the hassles of real fellowship. And here, before one can silently assuage the sting of hard duty with token gestures or self-glorify in a kind of suffering martrydom, Bonhoeffer explains:

“Is not the sinning brother still a brother? … Will not his sin be a constant occasion for me to give thanks that both of us may live in the forgiving love of God in Jesus Christ? Thus the very hour of disillusionment with my brother becomes incomparably salutary, because it so thoroughly teaches me that neither of us can ever live by our own words and deeds, but only by that one Word and Deep which really binds us together—the forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ.”